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Do “real scientists” take research trips instead of holidays?

By Margaret Harris

Photo of beach-wear

Getting away from research for a while on a beach. (iStockphoto/David Franklin)

I’ve just started reading Letters to a Young Scientist, a new book by the eminent biologist Edward O Wilson. I picked it up as a possible subject for Physics World’s Between the Lines column of short book reviews because while Wilson is definitely not a physicist – he made his name studying the social systems of ant colonies – his book is written for scientists in all disciplines.

I haven’t finished it yet, but one bit of advice from the chapter “What it takes” grabbed my attention. After stating that academic scientists should expect to work 60-hour weeks, Wilson drops the real bombshell.  “Real scientists do not take vacations,” he writes. “They take field trips or temporary research fellowships in other institutions.”

My first thought was: “Easy for you to say, mate.” Wilson studies ants and, as he explains in chapter three, they are found in every land environment on the planet. So they’re not exactly restricting his choice of holidays, er, “temporary research fellowships”.

My second thought was: “What about their families?” Wilson is married and he and his wife have a daughter. Did he take both of them on his field trips to the Amazonian rainforest? Or did they just never take holidays together as a family? Of course, not all scientists have children or spouses. However, even the single, childless ones have parents and friends who may, perhaps, wish to see them at times and places that do not coincide with “field trips”. What are they supposed to do?

My final thought, however, was: “He may be on to something.” Okay, so combining holidays and research is relatively easy for an ant biologist, and even easier for a married, male ant biologist at a wealthy institution (Wilson spent most of his career at Harvard). But even a discipline like physics, which is not generally associated with exotic places, does boast a rather high number of scenically located institutions and conferences. Sure, politics probably played a role in siting CERN at the foot of the Jura Mountains, and the Los Alamos National Lab was built in the New Mexico high desert for national security, and there’s a regular atomic-physics conference in Obergurgl, Austria, at the start of the ski season because…um…because…hmm.

As destinations for working semi-holidays, these places are likely to be popular with both scientists and their families, and I suspect that a milder version of Wilson’s “field trips not vacations” philosophy has helped sustain them over the years. So with that in mind, the question for this week’s Facebook poll is:

Do “real scientists” take research trips instead of holidays?


As always, you’re welcome to comment on the poll either here or on Physics World’s Facebook page, and we’ll post the results next week.

In last week’s poll we asked: “Is creativity as important in science as it is in art?” The outcome was resounding, with 94% of the respondents choosing “yes” and the remaining 6% opting for “no”. The poll also attracted a lively discussion among our Facebook followers about the topic, with many people writing about why new science requires creativity. Here are a couple of your comments:

“Imagination is the spark and the fuel; it is the genesis of the question. Creativity enables us to explore the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of those questions.”
Thomas Fontaine

“Creativity is thought itself; it is being able to diverge from the pattern of mere stimulus response, input and output; to become separate from the universe enough to observe it, to appreciate it. Without creativity, science is a dead process amounting to nothing.”
Jordan Munroe

Thanks for all your participation and we hope to hear from you again in this week’s poll.

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  1. fred

    The correct question to ask is that, is the creativity valued as it is in the art? I mean if the professor, academic community, and the society value the creativity in the researches or just the volume of amount of research?

    The problem with the creativity in science (contrary to art) is that, it is not immediately observable by public, or even to peer reviewers.

    A business man who decide for next year funding, or even a fellow physicist may not see the beauty of ingenuity of the particular work for several years. So, the person who is the owner that work may go unnoticed for whole or most of his life.

    I like here to point out Wigner 1937 seminal paper which went unnoticed for at least two years, since it was revolutionary full of ideas. Nowadays, a researcher like me can not afford his paper goes unnoticed for 2 years, or four month.

    My point is that the current funding, teaching, and student admission should be revised for fundamental sciences. Not every student can be fundamental scientist, as not every art student can not be a prominent artist.


  2. Chris Walker

    As a scientist I would like to help developing nations.
    In addition it would be nice to take a holiday in some of these nations.
    It is possible to undertake certain volunteering holidays, but usually these do not involve using ones scientific experience to help the country one is visiting.
    I have been looking for a scheme whereby one visits a developing country and perhaps gives a workshop or a lecture or even a series of lectures at a college or university. In return the local academics provide something in return such as accommodation or just the ability to meet the locals rather than just see the sights. Perhaps someone can add to or improve upon this suggestion?

  3. Mark Thompson

    Always loved this little observation –

  4. Yes, real scientists take research trips instead of holidays though it is not recommended and desirable because their personal lives are fused in their profession.
    Margaret, the questions cropped up in your mind are natural. We have a history of scientists who were so occupied with their researches that they forgot what they were doing currently.


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